History of Chowder

Food and Travel, In Season, Regional Food
on August 30, 2012
Wild Rice Chowder with Greens
Mark Boughton Photography / Styling by Teresa Blackburn

Ask for “chowder,” and you could be repeating the first word coined by Europeans in America. Bring a spoonful to your mouth, and you could be enjoying the first European-American dish. According to some historians, the word “chowder” was coined long before the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod. Fishermen from various parts of Europe were haunting the fertile waters of Newfoundland since John Cabot’s voyage of 1497. In their multilingual gatherings, they corrupted the French word chaudiere, the pot in which French fishermen made their stews, into the word “chowder.”

Those early chowders were different from our own. There was no milk—the nearest cow was thousands of miles away. And certainly there were no potatoes; this was several centuries before that tuber would complete its triangular journey from South America to Europe to North America. Yet we would recognize the dish: salt pork provided fat, onions added flavor, and ship’s biscuits thickened the stew teeming with cod and clams.

The addition of tomatoes was likely the work of Italian and Portuguese immigrants, and a chef from New York’s legendary Delmonico’s restaurant published a recipe for a tomato-laced chowder in 1889.

New Englanders, staunchly loyal to their milky version, dubbed it “Manhattan Clam Chowder” — to them, tomato chowders were a heresy and associating anything with New York was pejorative. As late as 1939, a bill was introduced in Maine making it a statuary offense to put tomatoes in chowder. Elsewhere, the word “chowder” is used for a variety of soups, with ingredients ranging from salmon to corn. A chowder may be defined by its chunkiness, while a bisque is typically pureed.

—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.